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Glossary of Whisky Terms

A guide to the vocabulary and terminology used to describe whisky, all stages of the production of Scotch and associated processes.

 Ageing – The maturation of whisky in an oak barrel or cask. Whisky can be aged from 3 years upwards. The ageing process stops when the whisky is bottled as unlike wine, it does not continue to mature in the bottle. Hence a whisky bottled after 25 years in the cask will always be a 25 year old whisky.

 Alligator – Refers to the cracked texture on the inside of the barrel that is left by the charring process

 American Oak - Quercus Alba. A type of hardwood used for casks, it has a distinctive, bourbon-like flavour and contributes vanillin and tannin flavours to the whisky. The staves are usually thicker than those used for casks made from French Oak which means that the Angel’s share is less.

 Angel’s Share – During storage in the cask, whisky approximately 2% of the whisky is lost each year due to evaporation

 Barley – an annual cereal grain used as the key ingredient in the production of whisky.

 Blended Whisky/Blend – A mixture of malt whisky and industrial grain whisky

 Blended Malt - (Previously known as a vatting) A blend of several different single malts

 Bonded – By law whisky must be stored for 3 years under the control of Customs and excise, before it can legally be called Scotch. In practice whisky is usually stored for much longer than this

 Bourbon – North American whisky, made from maize, wheat and barley and stored in a new American oak cask

 Brewing – Process by which wort, is fermented with yeast in a washback to produce a kind of beer, (wash), roughly 8% abv, which is then distilled to make whisky

Cask Strength - whisky taken straight from the cask and bottled at the same strength without being diluted with water.

Charring – Charring the inside of the barrel darkens the wood and caramelizes some of the sugars in the Oak; this then affects both the colour and flavour of the whisky. Originally discovered as a technique by Elijah Craig the Bourbon manufacturer who used some barrels that had caught fire to store his Bourbon

Coffey Still – Also known as a patent or continuous still and does not refer to a never-ending supply of caffeine. Invented in the 1820’s by Aeneas Coffey an Irishman it consists of two columns and acts like a series of pot stills, producing vapour with an alcohol content of about 96% abv. It is used mainly for the production of grain whisky to be used in blends.

Distillation – Central process in whisky production. The wash is heated in a copper pot still to separate the alcohol from the water. This happens at about 80 degrees C, alcohol evaporating at a lower temperature than water. Whisky is usually distilled twice, the first distillation producing the low wines and the second which takes place in the spirit still and is collected as strong distilled spirit. This spirit is produced in three parts, ‘fore shot’, ‘middle cut’ and ‘feints’.

Distillery Bottling - A whisky which is bottled by the distillery who produced it.

Draff - The remains of the grain after fermentation. Often used for animal feed.

Dram - a term commonly used to describe a small drink of whisky. Dram as a unit is actually the equivalent of 1 tsp or 5ml. Most people pour ‘drams’ considerably bigger than this!

European Oak - Quercus Robur. A type of oak tree used traditionally for Sherry casks. Much slower growing than American Oak it can take a tree 100 years to reach maturity

 Feints – (Also known as the tails) the weak and final portion of the spirit collected after the second distillation process. The Feints is added to the next batch of low wines and is re-distilled.

 Fermentation - The process by which yeast is added to the barley extract. The process takes place in a wash back and results in a type of "beer".

 Fore shot – (Also known as the heads).The first spirit collected after the second distilling. The fore shots are too strong at about 80% abv to be turned into whisky

 French Oak – (European Oak). A type of hardwood used for making casks. It imparts a subtler flavour than American Oak, although this is barely discernible as casks for whisky have nearly always been previously used for storing other products like Sherry. The staves being thinner than those made from American Oak allows the whisky to breathe more and increases the Angels Share.

Grain Whisky – made from any grain, often maize and usually distilled in a continuous, coffey, still.

Grinding – (Milling) Process by which the malted barley is ground to make‘coarse flour’, roughly 70% middles or grist, 10 % flour and 20% husks. 

Grist – The middles of the malt resulting from the milling process used for making the whisky

Heads – see fore shots

Hogs Head - A type of barrel used to store whisky

Independent Bottling - An independent bottling is a whisky that has been bottled by someone other than the distillery that produced it. Independent bottlers often wait until they think a particular cask has reached perfection and then bottle it as a single cask bottling. It will have the characteristics and signature flavours of the distillery but will be unique to those few bottles.

Irish Malt – Malt whiskey produced from barley in the same way as Scotch, except it is generally triple distilled. 

Kilning – A heat process by which the malted barley is dried to stop the germination process. Kilns can be fired using a variety of heat sources. Traditionally peat was used which imparted a smoky flavour into the whisky. 

Marriage – The blending of 2 casks from the same distillery.  

Malting – The process by which barley is first wet and then spread on the floor of the malting house. The barley germinates, allowing a chemical change to take place where the starch in the grain turns to sugar, (this will later produce alcohol). The barley must be kept at an even temperature and turned regularly. At the end of the process the barley is dried in a heated kiln to stop the germination process

Malting Floor – Floor of the malting house onto which raw barley is spread

Malting House – (See Malting)

Mashing – Process by which the milled malted Barley is mixed with hot water and progressively heated to obtain a sugary liquid called ‘wort’

Maturation – The ageing of whisky in an oak barrel or cask. Whisky can be aged from 3 years upwards. The ageing process stops when the whisky is bottled as unlike wine, it does not continue to mature in the bottle. Hence a whisky bottled after 25 years in the cask will always be a 25 year old whisky.

Middle cut – The ideal middle portion of spirit collected as a result of the distillation process,

Milling – (Grinding) Process by which the malted barley is ground to make‘coarse flour’, roughly 70% middles or grist, 10 % flour and 20% husks.

New Oak – refers to a virgin barrel. Bourbon must be stored on new oak, whereas it is rare to store whisky that way, as the residue from the previous occupant, whether Bourbon, Sherry or something else is considered a major contributor to the flavour

Patent Still - See Coffey Still

Peated whisky – whisky which has been made using barley dried in a peat fired kiln. It typically has a smoky flavour. 

Pot Still – A type of still commonly used for the distillation of whisky. Pot-bellied in shape, with a long swan like neck, heat is applied directly to the pot. The alcoholic vapour rises up, through the neck and into the condenser. 

Rye - A type of whisky, made mostly in North America, with a minimum Rye content of 51%

Single cask – used to describe whisky where the entire contents of the bottle have come from one single cask.

Single Malt – A bottling of whisky that comes from one distillery and is not diluted with grain whisky

Sour Mash – North American grain whisky. Acetic acid is added to hasten fermentation. Also known as ‘sippin’whisky’

Spirit Safe – Usually built of glass and copper, the spirit safe links the stills to the holding tanks. It is padlocked and under the control of Customs and Excise. Here the still man controls the quality of the spirit that will eventually be stored as whisky.

TailsSee Feints

Triple distilled – some regions of Scotland and Ireland choose to distill their whisky 3 times to achieve a higher, cleaner spirit.

Vatted Malt/Vatting – (Now officially called a blended malt) A blend of only single malt whiskies

Washback – A fermentation vessel that strains the yeast from the wort. Traditionally made from Oregan Pine, stainless steel is often found on larger production lines. 

Wood Finish – Whisky is sometimes put into a second cask to finish it with additional flavour. Common finishes are Sherry, Madeira and Burgundy.

Wash – A type of crude beer produced during the fermentation process, which is the distilled to make whisky

Wort – a sugary liquid produced during the mashing process which is subsequently fermented to produce a "beer" which is then distilled.

Whisky terminology is constantly changing. If you see anything you don't think is correct or think something important is missing, please email us